April 23, 2008

Round Two: Out West

Wow - not a good first round in the NHL. Don't get me wrong - there were a startling number of good games played, and some fantastic intensity - but as for my predictions... Four out of eight ain't bad exactly, but did I really say Montreal would take their series "easily"? Oy. And I was so hoping for a Washington-Calgary final!

Forget the past, move on to the second round:

Detroit vs. Colorado

Oh, my my! Look at what we have here: two team who had some great roaring battles through each team's Stanley Cup runs (between 1994-95 through 2001-02 one of the two teams had appeared in the final six times, with five wins to show for it). They've battled in the playoffs five times, and they had each been well worth watching.

It's going to be no different this year.

Detroit dominated the four regular season games by simply never letting the Avalanche play with the puck: with three shutouts in four wins, they kept Colorado to an average of 18 shots per game. The Avs, for their part, were without Sakic, Forsberg, Foote, or Salei for all of those matches; and leading scorer Stastny missed two with injury. That's a whole lot of skill the Red Wings didn't have to deal with, plus one of the best shut-down defenders in the league. Colorado also knew what they were getting when they chased down Ryan Smyth in free agency: some points, sure, but also a player who will walk through fire to get the Cup.

That being said, the Red Wings can certainly match the firepower of any team, front-to-back. Amazingly, this is the first year the Lidstrom has led the NHL scoring for defensemen, and he's been joined by the perpetually dangerous Rafalski. It's tough to know what to do against this team: both defenders are phenomenal at moving the puck, and playing a dump-and-chase game will leave deadly outnumbered rushes against any team that misses the first check in deep...

Then there's the goaltenders. A befuddled Hasek was pulled before three games were over, and Osgood only allowed one goal in finishing that game and winning the next two. He's a cinch to start this series, and is being backed by an ever-competitive Hasek, who's going to want a shot at redemption. Opposing them, though, will be a startlingly rejuvenated Theodore. Yes, he allowed 12 goals against the light-shooting Wild, but he also faced 200 shots - 57 more than Nashville managed in the same number of games. And any time you're facing a goaltender with a .940 save percentage, it can give your forwards dark thoughts.

This could come down to coaching, which will make for an interesting match of styles. Both coaches like playing four lines, perhaps the biggest difference being that the Avs' Quinnville prefers to match certain defenders against specific opponents rather than give sole responsibilities to a forward line, where the Wings' Babcock sets his grinders out against what he considers the most dangerous opponents, with the defenders to follow. Each coach will move players to different lines to avoid a match-up, and each of these teams is deep enough that the star players will be able to find someone that can take advantage of their skill.

Prediction: I'll say Detroit for this one, if only because they have more to prove after years of being the best team in the regular season, but not making the finals since 2002.

Dallas vs. San Jose

Few predicted Dallas would be here, and fewer still that they'd get here before the Sharks. That Turco has been rock solid has been unsurprising; that they got 20 goals in six games, and their leading scorer was the notoriously easy-to-distract Mike Ribeiro is. He's got the skills (and, alas, temperament) of an artist on a strictly blue collar team, but he's managed to keep the flippant behaviour to a minimum this year - perhaps coincidentally a contract year for him. Brenden Morrow has been a perfect choice of captain, releasing Modano from a weight that was clearly getting too heavy. Scoring on Dallas is now spread out among several playoff-tested forwards, including newly acquired Conn Smythe winner Richards, and memories of last year's embarrassing exit to the Canucks (losing in seven when your goalie managed three shutouts) shifted the burden of victory to the scorers.

San Jose is dealing with years of frustrated expectation themselves, though the fans there haven't traditionally used their goalies as whipping boys. For excellent reason: Nabokov has a career playoff record of 28 wins, 23 losses, and a save percentage of .917. Their offense has never managed to quite keep up in the past; this year, things are looking a little different. They are still relying on Grier to stop opponents, but re-signing Ozolinsh and trading for Campbell would give them the puck-moving defensemen they needed for a high-powered offense to... Well, sometimes it's best if you improvise. The offense has come from Thornton (of course), Marleau (whew!), Clowe (nice bonus) and... Pavelski? The heck's he doing with 8 points in seven games? Still, whatever works!

Which is also the motto of the Star's defense. Dallas sorely misses Zubov, and missed Boucher for three games, but Robidas has held the fort, chipping in a goal and five assists, easing the pressure off the three rookies patrolling the blue line. As for San Jose, Campbell never got his game going against the high-pressure Flames, and odds are he'll feel the same pressure against the Stars. Rivet is the only real threat the Sharks can muster from the blue line after Campbell, and lack a real hammer from the point, so if the match comes down to special teams, that could lose it for them.

Dallas managed ten power play goals against Anaheim, and the expected return of Zubov only make their special teams that more dangerous; but San Jose isn't the Ducks, and they are far better at maintaining discipline. That being said, these two teams did combine for 160 minutes in penalties in their last game of the season - fireworks could start early and often.

Prediction: The biggest difference between these teams is the first round: Dallas played against an oddly unfocused Ducks team, while San Jose was challenged by a fast and determined Flames squad. That crucible gives San Jose the advantage here.


posted by Thursday at 9:14 pm


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